Thursday, April 07, 2022

Literature Change

 Darn kids don't even know how to shoe a horse these days.

There is a trend - not an absolute but a shift - in what is chosen for children's theater now as opposed to two generations ago. It is a trend away from literature and towards branding. We saw the oldest granddaughter in a Disney-branded play last night, and there are other scripts among those groups following the Glee or High School Musical brands. I don't think there was anything like that fifty years ago. Even when a script is literature-based, it is likely to be an adapted script specifically for young people.  Sometimes it carries the tag "Junior" to let you know that, as in "Matilda JR," based on a Roald Dahl book. "Little Women" looks encouraging, but it is a musical now.

If the participants were all pre-highschool I would say there was only a slight change of emphasis in the unfortunate direction of regarding this moment in time as the center of all existence (Chronocentrism, or "chronological snobbery" for those of you following the mid 20th C Inklings framing). At some deep level I do dislike the increasing denial of all that is past, but scripts for that age group have always been mostly elevated skits, obvious humor, and superficial.  I was in such nuanced literary endeavors as "Hicks in the Sticks" and an actual minstrel show as a boy, and if you were an evangelical in the 1990s, there was always Psalty

But this is more worrisome as the lead actors are all highschoolers. There is a gradual movement away from what we used to call legitimate theater. 

Many of these are the local children's theater groups that draw from many schools and have to do this sorts of large-cast dance/chorus production to sell tickets to lots of grandparents and sibling. They won't be doing any legit theater at all. Theater companies have for years done an annual musical to make enough money to fund the rest of their offerings. These were often drawn from the Golden Age of Musicals, and many of them were pretty fluffy. But even large high schools didn't do these much. Too many volunteers needed. The improvement in recorded music, both for performance and rehearsal, may have made such musicals more accessible. 

I did some fluff, as I said, but I also had done "Death of a Salesman," "West Side Story," and "Tom Jones" before I got out of high school. There was a lot of repetition in what schools did, as you could learn from conversation at competitions. Everyone did "Our Town," ("The Skin of Our Teeth " might have been better) and/or "The Miracle Worker" and/or "A Christmas Carol." The large, rich, and ambitious schools in Northern Virginia might even attempt Shakespeare now and again. I don't recommend that, BTW. There were many forgettable scripts that made you wonder what English teacher forced into supervising the theater club this year thought this was funny. Or significant. Still, the intent was to make this instructive for the student body and even the community as a whole, at least some of the time. 

Well, we'll see when the girl gets to high school and I follow more closely exactly what is being offered, rather than just reading off the signs that they are doing "Seussical" this year as I drive by one school or another. I have read these automatically for years, and don't recall any dramatic or strong literary history offerings over the last twenty years.  I imagine there was something.


This particular script was clever but objectionable in a very typical theater/Disney/popular culture way.  The moral lines were drawn between the good people on one island and the evil people on another, and Surprise! the children of the good people turn out to be mostly prissy rule-keepers with a mean streak, while the evil Descendants are cooler and sexier, just a little rough around the edges. It is the latter who quickly learn true goodness. Some actual villains are portrayed as evil, at least, and the most moral character is drawn from the pile of the good side. There's that. There is the positive value that things that are valuable require sacrifice - Disney does that well - and as it is American Musical Theater one can hardly mind that romantic love is the most precious thing and conquers all. It is just morally wearying to have to fight this battle about the union of good and evil everywhere, even in our innocent entertainments.  It's the spirit of the age. And the last age and the one before it, too. The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.

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